Last week I went to lunch with a friend who got his MFA in creative writing back in the ’90s. He told me how these days — life being what it is, time being short, etc. — he rarely reads fiction anymore. He has also long given up on reading literary magazines/quarterlies, except for one.
I knew it before he said it: “Granta!”
It was a no-brainer. In the past two years alone: the sex issue; the feminism issue; the Pakistan and Spanish-language novelists issues. And its most recent issue, which commemorates 9/11 but more broadly provides a picture of our world since “the day everything changed” — such a diversity of viewpoints, in fiction and nonfiction and poetry; new work by exceptional authors representing far corners of the earth, all contained within the same two covers; voices that haunt as they sing, that stick in your brain like a melancholy tune.
No, I don’t love every single piece that appears in the fall issue. But I was moved, thrilled, tormented by many of them, which is enough — which is more than enough, a better thumbs-up-to-thumbs-down ratio than most periodicals of this sort can usually hope to achieve.
My favorites: “Redeployment,” a gravelly, energetic debut story by Phil Klay; “A Tale of Two Martyrs,” an indelible portrait of Mohamed Bouazizi and Sayed Bilal, by Tahar Ben Jelloun; “Punni’s Jihad,” a heart-stopping story by Nadeem Aslam; “The American Age, Iraq,” a penetrating mini-history of the Jesuits’ golden era in Baghdad, by The New York Times’s own Anthony Shadid.
And perhaps most especially: an excerpt from the forthcoming memoir “A Handful of Walnuts” (Chatto & Windus, 2012), by Ahmed Errachidi, a former London-based chef originally from Morocco who was wrongly detained at Guantánamo from 2002 to 2007. Errachidi is also bipolar, and possessed of a beautiful mind, as this passage from the excerpt makes clear:
Steel surrounded and captivated me. There was no horizon, no life and nothing to see. So I began to fly out of the cell with my thoughts and my imagination into the vast world of existence. I would put myself on the horizon, imagining that I was looking at this sun and its rays; I would travel to see birds and trees, imagine bees collecting nectar from flowers, and long for their honey. I would imagine the colours and scents of roses so that I wouldn’t forget them. I travelled into the scenery of clouds as they moved through the sky, as if they were ships sailing in the still blue sky, before breaking up and dispersing. I travelled to the moon, enjoying its quiet beautiful light, which did not disturb those who wanted to sleep. I imagined the stars sailing through the darkness of night, and felt their beauty and presence. I remembered every beautiful thing that I had known or experienced in the universe. I imagined the sunrise, a ray of light drawing a line on the horizon, slowly expelling the dark of the long night. I imagined newborn plants splitting the ground, fruits emerging from their skins. I imagined leaves falling to the ground, the sea and the fish, the rocks and corals. I imagined cattle and sheep as they grazed, and wondered how their milk could be such a brilliant white even though the grass they ate was green. Thoughts were not restricted, even though hands and feet were shackled.